03/18/2004 1:00AM

Derby Coast to Coast Shootout fills void


With the NCAA men's basketball tournament moving into the second round on Saturday and Sunday, this city is in the midst of one of its biggest weekends on the calendar, but that isn't keeping the casinos from making plans for the next sports marketing opportunity, the Kentucky Derby.

For the past 11 years, the Las Vegas Hilton has held the Pick the Ponies handicapping tournament in the three days before the Derby as a way for horseplayers to arrive early and make the most of their Derby Week experience. Because of the timing of its impending sale to real estate investment firm Colony Capital LLC, the Hilton had to cancel this spring's tournament.

Nevertheless, Coast Casinos has filled the void with the Derby Coast to Coast Shootout set for April 28-29, the Wednesday and Thursday before the May 1 Kentucky Derby, at The Orleans, Suncoast, and Gold Coast.

The Shootout will be a live-money event with players putting up a $300 entry fee and making 14 bets of $60 each ($840 total) through the parimutuel system over the two days. Players keep all the money from their winning tickets, and compete for the money in the prize pool, which will be seeded with $15,000 by Coast Casinos.

It may appear they are capitalizing on the Hilton's misfortune, but Bob Gregorka, director of race book operations for Coast Casinos, said that wasn't the case, at least not initially.

"We received a lot of good feedback about our live-money tournament in January," Gregorka said, referring to the Coast to Coast Winter Shootout, held at the Suncoast and Barbary Coast, "and we decided we wanted to do it again before the Derby. We were just going to have it at the Suncoast and Gold Coast, but when the Hilton canceled, we added The Orleans so we could accommodate more players."

Originally expected to draw 217 entrants with a total purse of $75,000, the event, organizers are hoping, will attract at least 284 entries, which would put the overall prize money over $100,000. The field will be limited to 300, so interested players are urged to contact tournament coordinator Debbie Flaig at (888) 566-7223.

Biggest event starts next week

That's not the only event on Coast Casinos' plate. It's biggest tournament, the Championship at The Orleans, is set for next Thursday through Saturday. With an entry fee of $500 and an average field of 700, the purse should approach $400,000 with $120,000 to the champion of the three-day event, in which each entrant makes 12 mythical $100 win bets.

Most of the contestants will be arriving in the middle of next week, but some are already in town. Among them is Ed Sehon, a public relations consultant from Winston-Salem, N.C., who organized a mini family reunion at Mandalay Bay so he and his wife could spend time with their daughter from San Jose, Calif., and son from New York City while enjoying the opening round action of the NCAA tournament.

Next week, after the kids go back to their respective homes, Sehon will move his tack to The Orleans.

"To me, it's a perfect parlay," Sehon said. "Horseracing is my passion. I've been handicapping for 40 years. I don't play all the tournaments, but when I saw that the Orleans [tournament] was right in the middle of the NCAA's, being from ACC country I thought it would be great to combine the two."

* After the Championship at The Orleans, the next tournament in Las Vegas will be Bally's Moolah on April 16-17 at Bally's Las Vegas. The tournament has a hefty entry fee of $5,000, but has the appeal of offering a Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship berth to the winner. Last year, the field was only 14 players, offering one of the best odds deals for serious players trying to qualify for the NHC.

* The circuit then moves to the Harrah's Reno Handicapping Tourna-ment on April 21-23 with an entry fee of $500 and a guaranteed first prize of $20,000, before returning to Vegas for the Derby Coast to Coast Shootout.

Madness marches, online

For bettors who aren't already tearing up their brackets heading into the second round of NCAA games on Saturday and Sunday, these are the games that separate the contenders from the pretenders. But even if you are out of the office pool, there are still games to bet to try and recoup your losses.

As of deadline on early Thursday morning, I did not know how my selections on Thursday or Friday had fared and the matchups weren't set for Saturday and Sunday, so it was impossible to make selections. Nevertheless, with no such deadline constraints on the Daily Racing Form website, my coverage of the NCAA tournament will continue at www.drf.com, with a recap of each day's results with the pointspread in mind, along with selections for each day's games available one day in advance.

Vegas man touts cops on sniper

A nationwide manhunt for the only suspect in the Ohio highway sniper case, Charles McCoy Jr., ended in Las Vegas early Wednesday morning, thanks to a patron of the Stardust race and sports book.

Conrad Malsom, a 60-year-old salesman and former lithographer, was eating pizza with a friend in the race book on Tuesday afternoon when he turned to offer some leftover slices to a stranger. Malsom, who said McCoy was recognizable from news reports despite a few day's beard growth, said the suspect's reading material also helped tip him off that McCoy seemed out of place in the betting emporium.

"He was in the sports book where you normally read the Racing Form, but he was reading USA Today," Malsom said in an interview aired by the local Fox affiliate. "He was reading the front section, with a story with his picture on it. That was a lock to me that I was looking at him."

After an hour, and as McCoy was preparing to leave, Malsom said he told McCoy that he was glad he enjoyed the pizza and asked his name. Malsom said McCoy said his name was "Mike."

But Malsom knew he had seen the real McCoy.

He collected the suspect's drinking glass, a food container, a Stardust matchbook, and a betting sheet with the suspect's illegible scribblings and called the Ohio hotline number that was listed with the newspaper story. He was directed to the local FBI headquarters, where he dropped off the items.

After feeling the police and FBI weren't following up quickly enough on his report, Malsom went on the Internet at a friend's house to find more information on McCoy, including his car and license plate number.

Recalling that McCoy had mentioned that he was staying at a local hotel, Malsom went to the nearby Budget Suites on Industrial Road and found that McCoy was registered under his own name and found his car in the parking lot.

Malsom called police again.

McCoy's car was gone by the time police arrived, but when he returned to the Budget Suites at 2:45 a.m. Wednesday he was arrested without incident.